Physicality and form have been at the forefront of Beija Flo’s experimental artistry, boldly laid bare in her fervent songwriting and zealous live showcases. Cath Holland learns more about the subtle contours of her being.
30 minutes into interviewing BEIJA FLO, I know more intimacies about her than women I’ve known all my adult life. We’re in a slightly different scenario than a naturally developing friendship gradually built; every word and pause is recorded, as we talk in a Liverpool city centre bar in late afternoon. But my point still stands: Beija likes to share.
I first heard of Beija via a review of one of her shows. The writer wrote at length about the singer, poet and artist’s medical history, namely her diagnosis of MRKH syndrome – more of that later. In the accompanying photographs she looked witchy, wild and sexy, in fishnets and leotard with everywhere hair and much drama. Seeing her perform myself, I witnessed a minimalist yet theatrical performance – she and a laptop, but on a stage decorated like a burlesque club in Berlin. Most of all, she was a woman comfortable in her own skin. Weeks later, a nervous daytime show at Birkenhead Library away from her usual crowd showed the vulnerability of a fledgling artist.
I’ve since learnt a lot more about Beija Flo the artist: she’s a life model, standing and reclining naked in front of complete strangers for a living. On one hand we have Beija the bold siren, with a microphone and great one line put-downs. And on the other, a young woman still trying to find her place.
Beija’s MRKH syndrome means she has no womb or sexual organs. She talks frankly about that and her poor health at her gigs and in interviews, via social media, wherever she can. I sure as hell didn’t know what it was the first time, so I Googled madly for information on the subject. It’d be rude not to.
“I’m an enigma to the NHS,” she tells me of it, and her seven-year experience with the cyclical vomiting syndrome which leads to constant nausea and daily bouts of being sick. “The amount of time I’ve been in [hospital], it’s like, ‘Do you mind just talking to a team of junior doctors, because you know way more than we do’.”
So yes, we think we know all about Beija Flo. How wrong we can be? We’re to learn a heck of a lot more, revealed in a forthcoming exhibition at Output Gallery incorporating her different creative strands. Somewhat tellingly, the collection of drawings, poems – she cites eccentric oddballs like Viv Stanshall and Ivor Cutler as influences – and photographic self-portraits, is called Nudes, along with the recent single of the same name. This is the sharing of her most secret self and experiences yet, an insight into an 18-month period some time ago when she suffered a series of scarring events. “I gave trust to the wrong people and received scars in return,” says the press release.
“Over this period I was with a very abusive partner emotionally and slightly physically,” she explains quickly. “Sort of had a lot of sex when I didn’t really want to.”
Er, having sex you don’t want is much more than ‘slight’ abuse. It’s the real deal. Abuse is abuse.
“Yes. No, not slightly, really.” She smiles, sadly…
In the song Nudes, with its bleak narrative and static electronic musical bed, she sings of the relationship: “I’ve been the fool…” But any blame needs to be firmly on the abuser’s shoulders.
“Yes. Yeh… I was with someone who wasn’t very good for me. And left me feeling very small and very angry. But also very un-listened to and very insignificant.”
Abusive relationships have emotional and physical effects and this exhibition is about your relationship with your body. I’m guessing this experience had an effect on your body, and how you viewed it?
“After that, sex really wasn’t fun anymore for a while, quite a while. And it affected me with later partners. Maybe half a year after being with him, I met this really wonderful girl and I know that I was very challenging to be in a relationship with. It was more to do with what I’d been left with. [I] didn’t want to be hurt or revisit emotions.”
The issue of body confidence is an aspect of the exhibition as well, I take it?
“The exhibition is an insight into the journey I’ve been on with my own body; the good bits and the bad bits. I still have days where I’m, like, ‘I hate this’. Sometimes if I eat a really big meal I get a bit bloated and I hate that because my biggest, biggest nightmare is, and I know it’s silly, but, erm, I get very insecure someone might think that I’m pregnant. Because I can never ever be pregnant.”
And that upsets you?
“It’s a really, really big concern. My weight has always been up and down I have some days where I put on a bit of weight and I feel really good about where all of that weight is.”
As long as it’s evenly distributed?
“Yeh! It’s not like I’ve ever stood naked in front of anyone and they’ve gone, ‘Oh, no, you’ve had too much ice cream, put your T-shirt back on’. No one’s ever said that and I think I almost have a few little tricks I use on myself to make myself feel good about my body.”
The photos in the exhibition were taken during her ‘lost weekend’ that lasted four or five months after the bad relationship ended. She won’t reveal when this took place “because people can’t figure out how old Beija is. All I can tell you it happened in a window on Bold Street”.
And which window is that? I ask. It’s worth a go.
“Can’t tell you.”
But she can tell me it was warm, so when indoors she was naked much of the time, purposely isolating herself.
“I remember having a lot of fun but also feeling very lonely. But almost being grateful for the loneliness, ’cos it meant I really discovered my body. I took lots of walks and did lots of drawing and wrote lots and spent a lot of time with myself.
“That man I was with, the horrible one, was quite abusive. Abusive,” she corrects herself. “I lost a lot of myself in that experience and I’m still gaining that back. Or maybe I will never quite get her back.”
The eventual need to be with people led her to go on a series of dates, but again with men who took advantage of her vulnerable state.
“I don’t fully remember all of it. It was a very dark period of time where I look back and I think, ‘Who was that woman in my body?’ I did not like her.”
She thinks it happened because she feels more ‘normal’ when she’s in a relationship with “someone not totally emotionally understanding or won’t just hear ‘I don’t have a vagina’ and… [will] let you explain how you can have a normal… a great sex life.
“That’s when I feel the most confident in my body and my issues because, even though I’m very confident about my MRKH syndrome, and know that if any future partner would have an issue with the syndrome that they’re in the wrong, not me.
“I’m intrigued by sex and how people do it,” she continues. “I’ve always, always been interested in what other people are doing in sex and I remember being in the earlier stage in my life when sex was a lot more blurry and I didn’t really know what it was. When I first started discovering my body I was ahead of the other girls, really. I was with the boys in terms of experimenting with masturbation.”
It’s not that teenage girls don’t masturbate, I don’t think. It’s more that it’s taboo. They don’t talk about it.
She nods. “I remember asking boys how it felt and how do you do it and I was very intrigued. It wasn’t in a sense of let me see it or anything, I was very interested in how other people saw their bodies.”
Beija and I meet again a couple of weeks later, in the same place on the same sofa, but this time I ask her to bring some of the photos from her Nude months. A fan of the late American photographer Francesca Woodman, who specialised in experimental photos of herself and other women, Beija’s images are true to her inspiration. There are lots, all of Beija at this mysterious place on Bold Street. Taken at different times of the day and night, in some she’s naked, others wearing underwear. Her mood varies, too: she’s in distress in one picture, the next peaceful and happy. Some are natural and stark, others posed and a little contrived. In one she’s in a bath dyed red with food dye and bath bombs. A few show her body only, no face. She knew from the get-go, she says, which images out of the incredible 500 taken were to be used for the exhibition. From different times of the day, when newly woken or late at night, and in earlier images she has no body hair. In ones taken later, armpit and pubic hair is growing back as her confidence and sense of self makes a return.
She flicks through them and recalls each one with surprising clarity. It’s not like looking at photos on your phone of a night out with friends, holiday snaps or shots photographers take of her at gigs. So what did she think of her body laid out in such a way when she saw them for the first time? A camera taking a still of you like this and alone, no audience to pander to or entertain, how did she feel? It’s difficult to get an answer out of Beija on this one – I ask her three times. “They’re sad in places and hard to look at,” she concedes eventually. “I captured how I was feeling. It was more, ‘This is what we’ve got’. It wasn’t a negative or a positive.”
She points out one of her laying down with a peaceful expression on her face, her upper body at ease and content. There are visible love bites on her neck. “This one is after quite a nice one night stand. I quite liked him and never heard from him again.”
You look very girlish there: pink skin, slightly flushed.
“Yeh, it’s partly the lighting. After you’ve had a nice time with somebody you feel… it looks a little bit like I’m glowing.”
In a remarkably beautiful photograph, Beija somehow resembles a pre-Raphaelite painting, her hair cascading around her shoulders in waves. She’s often booked for life modelling precisely due to that look. Hylas And The Nymphs, the 1896 oil painting by John William Waterhouse, springs to mind, removed temporarily and controversially from public view from Manchester Art Gallery last year, leading to accusations of censorship. The irony being, if you wish to take the subversive view, it features females surrounding and luring a young man into the water for their own pleasures. The nymphs are calling the shots.
Beija’s hair changes in the images as we go through them, in itself reflecting her state of mind, she reckons. In some she’s cut it, obviously and dramatically.
“I don’t really get my hair cut often. It’s almost as if I have to cut something off myself, [so] I’ll cut off my hair. It’s quite cleansing.”
On the plus side, it grows back.
“It grows back newer and stronger, which I like.”
Beija points out exhibition photos she calls “the sunburnt drunk ones”. “It was on a really hot day,” she says of them, “and I’d been out with lots of my male friends and I sat there frustrated, [thinking] ‘Why aren’t I allowed to take my top off and sit here? Why is it I was allowed to do that when I was six, but not now I’m a woman. How come boys are allowed to become men and lots of rules don’t change, especially with how they present their body?’”
It’s the women should exist in private space only and men alone own the public arena scenario, as old as time itself. “Being a woman is challenging.”
Beija goes on to share stories, of being told by men and boys when she’s not wearing a bra and the male inability to pass a woman in a crowded space without placing his hands on her hips, shoulders or back.
“There are people out there who don’t understand personal space,” she laughs at the ridiculousness of the last example.
Going back to the subject of the exhibition, I can’t help but wonder if revisiting such a strange period in her life is an entirely positive experience? Most people don’t enjoy dredging up bad stuff.
“It’s been emotional. It’s like,” she pauses to take a breath. “Do you ever feel sorry for your younger self?”
All the bloody time, my dear.
“If only you knew then what you know now? I felt so horrible for that period of time and I look back and I’m so proud of myself for getting to where I am now. Although I’ve still bloody miles to go, the universe loves playing games with me. I get lots of shit thrown in my garden.”
Do you think woman relate to you, because of the openness around your vulnerabilities? Women are restricted by our biology and physical weakness compared to men. Your limits may be different from most women but the common bonds remain.
“[With] the openness and honesty of it,” she speculates. “I don’t think I particularly dress up or glamourise my struggles. I think a lot of women don’t realise that we all have something to say. We’ve all had bad experiences and some people think, ‘Oh, I’m a woman and that’s just the way unfortunately society is’, and I’m like, ‘Sod that for a bunch of bananas’.
“Some women at first hate me ‘cos they think I’m being really cocky: ‘Look at this girl, she knows she’s really thin’ and whatever. Then they watch the show and find out all of these things and I haven’t had the easiest time. A large amount of the time the way women dress is for other women. I feel for women that dress for other women and are so self-conscious that they maybe don’t wear something they like and feel comfortable in.”
Being part of a group is a human need, though. Everyone feels that, even outsiders.
“What I mean is, a lot of women feel really under pressure to act a certain way and look a certain way. When people see what I do and the confidence and the fact I feel sexy onstage… still people ask me why I wear leotards, where I get the confidence running around in the nip. Essentially I have always aimed to never lose the confidence and the innocence and the freedom of being a four-year-old running around in your knickers around a paddling pool in the middle of the town park.”
This exhibition explores the relationship between you and your body, yet you must ultimately feel let down by yours?
“You know, men can shout all they want at me. I don’t have a vagina. You can’t have sex with me even if you tried. It’d hurt you a lot more than it would hurt me because it’s essentially shoving your dick into a brick wall. That’s not going to feel good. I feel in particular with that side of things, me being told that there was so much my body can’t do, I’m like, ‘OK, what can my body do?’ You can look but you can’t touch because of my situation.”
Incels – men who think they are entitled to sex and resent women when they can’t get it – get very angry. You as a woman can be hurt in other ways by them.
“Yes,” she nods. “Yes. Been there.”
So you’re aware of your vulnerabilities?
“Yes, I am. When I’m not at a venue and travelling to or from I’ve had men think I’m a prostitute just because I’m in knee-high boots and a leotard. That’s a very strange position to be in but, also, unless we go for it in the places that are safe then it will never get to the point where we want it be.”
When planning the photo session to go with this article, the first thing she asked herself and the photographer, Robin Clewley, was, ‘What am I allowed to do?’ Speaking shortly after the session, she confesses to being “a bit nervous” on the run up to the day.
But I want to know, how different did it feel, being photographed by someone else?
“It was obviously different to posing for myself.”
Many photos for the Nudes exhibition were taken by candlelight, a contrast with the professional lighting draped across the shoot.
“Because I’m a life model subject so often, I trust people to get me to position my body in a way that works from their angle. The paintings and drawings I see of myself are always so beautiful. That’s how I felt after this shoot.
“Robin made me look like a Renaissance painting. Everyone should feel like a Renaissance painting.”